Dreams Take Flight at Phoenix College

Friday, March 8, 2019
Darrell Sawyer

Phoenix College (PC) has been the launching point for many young entrepreneurs over the years. One successful alumnus took flight, both figuratively and literally, after graduating from PC. Darrell Sawyer, class of 1949, created an aviation empire with grit, a keen business sense, and an incredible passion to fulfill his dreams.

Darrell’s father always wanted to be a farmer, but during the Great Depression money and farmland were hard to come by.  Darrell and his family moved to Gilbert Arizona, and Darrell’s father became a teacher but never lost the drive to be a farmer. Once his father had saved up enough money, he purchased land to farm and irrigate. Watching his father push through obstacles to attain his goals inspired Darrell to always follow his dreams.

Although he enjoyed working side-by-side with his father and siblings on the farm, Darrell knew that a pastoral life was not for him.

A Dream is Born

As a young boy, Darrell pestered his parents to visit Phoenix Sky Harbor airport to watch the planes take off and land any chance he could. He fell in love with the thrill and adventure that beckoned from those dusty runways and envision himself as a pilot.

At 15 years old, Darrell saved $81 from working on tractors. He was sure that would be enough to get him in the air. Unfortunately, money was not the only thing Darrell needed. Upon requesting flying lessons, he was told there was no point in taking lessons until he was 16 and a half years old; the minimum age to apply for a pilot’s license.

Although Darrell was too young to take lessons, he never left the airfield; taking any odd job he could get, from painting the hanger to mowing lawns. As he slowly became a common face around the airfield, he was given new tasks such as assisting the mechanics in the machine shop. Darrell absorbed all the knowledge he could about aviation, saving every dollar he earned for the day he could fly.

When he turned 16 and a half, Darrell started taking flying lessons. Most airplane enthusiasts in the 1940s could only take lessons sporadically due to the high cost of each lesson. Darrell, on the other hand, was able to fly three times a week, so his learning and skills increased exponentially. On his seventeenth birthday, Darrell took the test and received his private civilian pilot’s license, achieving his life-long goal to fly.

College Take Off

After graduating Gilbert High School in 1949, Darrell enrolled at Phoenix College, and the lure of aviation called him again.  PC was one of the few colleges in the country teaching commercial aviation at the time, through a partnership with Sky Harbor Airport.

When he was not at the airport, Darrell was taking business and general education courses at PC’s main campus. When asked how he felt about those courses, Darrell says he took a purposeful approach to get the most out of his general education classes.

While he would rather be flying, he knew that the accounting classes would one day help him run his aviation business. The journalism course could greatly assist him with marketing his company to potential clients, and the English course would help him better articulate his business plan. Having a clear vision for his future provided Darrell with the motivation to complete his coursework.

Darrell left PC after achieving both his commercial license and flight instructor rating. He enlisted in the Air Force and served as a flight mechanic in the Korean War before heading off to Arizona State University to earn a Bachelor’s degree in business.

Taking the Dream to New Heights

After college, Darrell started his own flight company, Sawyer Aviation in the mid-1950s. Never forgetting his roots, Darrell also spent a few evenings each week as a flight instructor at his alma mater, Phoenix College.

Taking knowledge from his PC flight professors and his own extensive flying experience, Darrell opened his own flight school.

His advice to current Phoenix College students and young alumni is:

“Take ownership of your passion and find ways to make your dreams happen through additional schooling or experience. Never underestimate what you can accomplish if you laser-focus your goals."

Darrell’s retired from flying now, but still finds time to catch a flight with friends at every opportunity.